Cannabis is in the news again for its purported medicinal benefits, with researchers in Israel last week indicating it may help prevent trauma to the brain in certain circumstances and may also help with cardiac problems. A few months ago an English pharmaceutical company that manufactures cannabinoids announced it was developing a new treatment for epilepsy using them.
Prof. Yosef Sarne in the Adelson Center for the Biology of Addictive Diseases in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at Tel Aviv University says that cannabis has neuro-protective qualities. He has found that extremely low doses of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC- the psychoactive component of marijuana- can protect the brain from long-term cognitive damage in the wake of injury from hypoxia (lack of oxygen), seizures, or toxic drugs.
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Previous studies focused on injecting high doses of THC within much shorter time frames- approximately just 30 minutes- before or after injury. Sarne’s papers in Behavioural Brain Research and Experimental Brain Research say that even extremely low doses of THC- around 1, 000 to 10, 000 times less than that in a conventional marijuana cigarette – administered over a wide window of 1 to 7 days before or 1 to 3 days after injury can jump-start biochemical processes which protect brain cells and preserve cognitive function over time.
In the laboratory, researchers injected mice with a single low dose of THC either before or after exposing them to brain trauma. A control group of mice sustained brain injury but did not receive the THC treatment. When the mice were examined 3 to 7 weeks after initial injury, recipients of the THC treatment performed better in behavioral tests measuring learning and memory. Additionally, biochemical studies showed heightened amounts of neuroprotective chemicals in the treatment group compared to the control group.
Brain populate with cannabinoid neurotransmitters
This treatment, especially in view of the long time frame for administration and the low dosage, could be applicable to many cases of brain injury and be safer over time, Sarne says and he theorizes that ultra-low doses of THC induces minor damage to the brain, which may actually “precondition” the brain to protect it against more severe damage from injuries such as lack of oxygen, seizures or toxic drug exposure. In other words, it may act as a sort of vaccine against more traumatic harm.
Professor Raphael Mechoulam has authored hundreds of scientific papers on cannabinoid research as well as a book, Cannabinoids as Therapeutic Agents, which provided an early review of the research in this area. Dr. Mechoulam was President of the International Cannabinoid Research Society and has received numerous honors and awards for his outstanding contributions to the field. He is a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences, and among the numerous prizes that he has received for his work, is the highest national scientific prize in Israel- the Israel Prize.
In 1964, Dr. Mechoulam and colleague, Dr. Yehiel Gaoni, were the first to identify and synthesize delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis. Their discovery provided new insights into how the brain functions and opened the door to medical research exploring, not only the therapeutic potential of THC (marketed as Marinol in America), but other natural and synthetic cannabinoids as well.
Dr. Mechoulam, along with pharmacologist Dr. Habib Edery and colleagues, went on to isolate and elucidate the structures of most members of the cannabinoid group of compounds in the cannabis plant. Twenty-eight years after discovering THC, in 1992, Dr. Mechoulam, along with Dr. William Devane and Dr. Lumir Hanus, identified the brain’s first endogenous cannabinoid (or endocannabinoid)—the brain’s natural version of THC—which they named “anandamide, ” from the Sanskrit word “ananda, ” which means “eternal bliss” or “supreme joy.”
Research since revealed that the brain is richly populated with cannabinoid neurotransmitters and receptors. Just as the active compound in opium, morphine, led to the discovery of the endogenous morphine or endorphin system in the brain, research investigating the active compound in cannabis, THC, led to the discovery of the brain’s endocannabinoid system. Later Dr. Mechoulam and colleagues identified the THC metabolites and, more recently, along with Dr. Lumir Hanus and Dr. Shimon Ben-Shabat, he discovered a second endocannabinoid known as 2-arachidonylglycerol (2-AG). These findings have profoundly advanced our understanding of cannabinoid systems.
Cannabinoids in Epilepsy Treatment
The English cannabinoid drug maker GW Pharmaceuticals announced in September 2012 it was planning to use a new component of the plant to create a treatment for epilepsy to add to its growing use as an existing treatment for multiple sclerosis and pain relief for cancer patients. This follows the publications of research by the University of Reading into a previously largely ignored substance “cannabidvarin” which occurs naturally in cannabis.
Scientists found that cannabidvarin works against epileptics’ convulsions, but unlike other cannabis-based treatments does not make users “high”.
Dr Stephen Wright, the research and development director at GW, said: “These results further underscore the potential of naturally derived cannabinoids as medicines to treat a range of diseases.
There is a government-approved farm tucked away in the Galilee hills in northern Israel that grows medical marijuana; the farm is called Tikn Olam. One variety they can grow there is said to have the strongest psychoactive effect of any cannabis in the world; while another variety, rich in anti-inflammatory properties, will not get you high at all but may be much more useful for medicinal purposes.
Casual consumption of marijuana is illegal in Israel, as in other countries, but farms like this one exist at the edge of the discussion on the legality, benefits and risks of medicinal cannabis. Its staff members wear white lab coats, its grow-ops are carefully managed and are protected 24/7 by security cameras and guards.
In Israel special licenses issued by the Ministry of Health now permit thousands of patients to receive medical marijuana, and some government officials have even praised the country’s state of the art in the field as an example of its pioneering and innovation.
In the 1960s, Professor Raphael Mechoulam and his colleague Yechiel Gaoni at the Weizmann Institute of Science were the first to identify THC. Later, Professor Mechoulam deciphered the cannabinoids native to the brain. Tikkun Olam, a professor emerita of immunology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has studied another main constituent of cannabis, cannabidiol, or CBD, considered a powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety agent.
In 2009, only about 400 Israelis were licensed to receive the substance; today, that number has risen to over 10, 000. Working with Hebrew University researchers, the farm has also developed a version in capsule form, which would make exporting the drug more practical, should the law allow it.
In January Professor Mechoulam, now 82, said in an interview with the New York Times that he had been urging producers over the years to grow cannabis with less THC and more CBD, something in which non-medical marijuana growers had little interest. He said what Tikkun Olam had done did not advance theoretical science but was “a very practical development.”
In Israel, he said, research in the field is “definitely a work in progress, ” and he cautioned, “Science is not a 100-meters Olympic race; it is not who is first on the line that is important.” The real advances, he said, are being made not on farms but in laboratories around the world, including in the United States and Europe. The professor, who collaborates with many teams abroad, said that chances were that in the next few years well defined mixtures of the compounds, refined into something more like a medical drug, would replace today’s medicinal marijuana.
In the meantime, he said, offering products with different levels of key ingredients, as Tikkun Olam does, “is going towards personalized medicine.” Yet experts say that many medical professionals in Israel remain skeptical and are reluctant to encourage patients to use marijuana, be it because of conservatism or a lack of knowledge about its potential benefits. Obtaining a personal-use license from the Health Ministry for a patient requires a special effort by doctors and can take more time than some patients have.
For centuries marijuana had been used for medical purposes and it first became a legally prescribed drug nation-wide in the United State only in the nineteen thirties in the aftermath of the final repeal of the prohibition of alcohol consumption in 1933. The Assistant Prohibition Commissioner who had been in charge of enforcing prohibition, Harry J. Anslinger, was widely admired as an incorruptible figure, and in 1930 he became the First Commissioner of the US Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. He then became both chief lobbyist to Congress and the White House, and subsequently chief enforcer, for marijuana regulation in the United Sates as a Class A illegal substance.
Of course dangers of smoking marijuana remain, as they do for smoking generally, and it remains a developing field with arguments on both sides of the debate.